Macau stays cool to 'travel bubble' with Hong Kong

Macau stays cool to 'travel bubble' with Hong Kong

City anxious to keep out Covid-19

A pedestrian wearing a mask at the Ruins of Saint Paul’s Cathedral in Macau. (South China Morning Post photo)
A pedestrian wearing a mask at the Ruins of Saint Paul’s Cathedral in Macau. (South China Morning Post photo)

HONG KONG: The Ruins of Saint Paul's Cathedral, Macau's most famous landmark, are filled with visitors and tour guides holding flags aloft in the run-up to China's "golden week" holiday.

It is a scene neighbouring Hong Kong has not experienced for more than a year since the Covid-19 pandemic arrived, putting the city into lockdown and keeping travellers away.

Capturing the buzz outside St Paul's in a live broadcast on Tuesday, Hong Kong restaurateur and YouTube celebrity Alex Yeung Kwun-wah spoke to a man surnamed Li from Shunde, in Guangdong province, who is visiting with his wife and son for the five-day holiday starting on May 1, Labour Day.

"Even if Hong Kong reopens its borders to travellers, I will prefer Macau as a family trip destination because its pandemic situation is much more stable," Li said.

His comments reflected perceptions of the Covid-19 situation in Macau compared with Hong Kong, and indicated that a "travel bubble" between the neighbouring cities might not happen anytime soon.

Tourism has bounced back in the casino hub which has had no local Covid-19 cases for nearly 400 days, with an increasing number of visitors coming from the mainland.

In March, Macau saw its highest number of visitors in a single month since before the pandemic, when 754,541 people arrived. High occupancy rates at five-star hotels during Golden Week also point to a revival.

Hoffman Ma Ho-man, executive director of Success Universe Group, said up to 90% of rooms in Ponte 15 Resort Macau, the company's hotel and casino resort, were booked mainly by mainlanders attracted by affordable room rates and quarantine-free measures.

"There were extra flights from Shanghai to Macau during the long holiday. I believe the visitor flow will be quite promising," he said.

Hong Kong's battered tourism players may be eager for a slice of the Macau pie but they will have to wait, not least because of concerns there about importing Covid-19 from the city.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam floated the possibility of a "travel bubble" between the two special administrative regions on Wednesday, only to receive the cold shoulder.

The lukewarm response reflected significant changes in the regional mix of visitors to the casino city over the past two years, Wu Wai-fong, chairwoman of the Macau Tourist Guide Association, told the South China Morning Post.

People walk in front of Casino Lisboa in Macau. (Reuters file photo)

Visitor arrivals in Macau plummeted 85% year-on-year to 5.9 million last year from 39.4 million in 2019.

Although total visitor arrivals fell during the pandemic, the proportion of mainland tourists surged from 71% in 2018 to 91% this March. Visitors from Hong Kong shrank from 18% to just 8% over the same period, official figures showed.

Hong Kong, which had a record 65.1 million visitors in 2018, saw its numbers fall in the second half of 2019 as the city was gripped by social unrest. Mainlanders, who made up 78% of arrivals before the unrest, began staying away. With the pandemic, there were only 3.6 million visitors last year.

Wu said the social unrest of 2019 and last year's fluctuating Covid-19 situation in Hong Kong diverted many mainland tourists to Macau.

Macau's requirements for incoming travellers also deterred visitors from Hong Kong, she added. Those arriving must present a green "health code" and a Covid-19 test certificate valid for seven days before they can enter Macau.

Mainland China was currently the only place to have a largely quarantine-free travel bubble with Macau and for now, Wu said, the whole tourism industry was geared towards promoting the casino hub as a safe destination for mainlanders.

"Hong Kong will still be our important visitor source market, but you can't have your cake and eat it," she said, referring to worries in Macau about Covid-19 arriving with visitors from next door.

"The cost will be unbearable if any imported cases from Hong Kong prompt the Chinese authorities to close our border with the mainland."

Since the Covid-19 outbreak in January last year, Macau reported 49 cases with no deaths, while Hong Kong has seen four waves of infections, with 11,755 cases and 209 deaths.

Macau's casino workers are also not exactly enthusiastic about a possible travel bubble with Hong Kong, even though gaming facilities suffered their worst year on record in 2020.

New Macau Gaming Staff Rights Association chairperson Cloee Chao Sao-fong urged the Macau government to give priority to approving group travel visas that will bring in more mainlanders. Currently, they can only arrive as individual visitors.

"The revenue generated by one rich punter from the mainland could be equivalent to that from 1,000 ordinary punters from elsewhere," she said.

But for that to happen, she added, Macau had to stay Covid-free. "I don't think the Macau government is eager to push for any new bubble," she said.

Despite recent signs of recovery in tourism and increased casino revenue in March this year, Chao said many casino workers were still on unpaid leave.

Hong Kong's leader Lam told lawmakers on Wednesday that she had discussed the travel bubble possibility with her Macau counterpart Ho Iat-sing, but did not provide details.

Macau officials had said earlier last week that they had not started any discussions about travel bubbles with other regions.

Following Lam's remarks, a spokesman for the Macau Government Tourism Office told the Post that the authorities there would actively promote "safe travel" to attract mainland visitors and had "nothing to add" on the border arrangement with Hong Kong.

Hong Kong Travel Industry Council chairman Jason Wong Chun-tat hoped that with the stabilising Covid-19 situation, the city government would continue to push for a quarantine-free arrangement with Macau.

"It will definitely be good news as Macau has always been a popular weekend getaway for Hong Kong residents," he said. "If this works, it will also boost faith in deals on opening the borders with mainland China and other regions."

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